Have you ever felt anxious before a big presentation, job interview, or first date and felt the urge to run to the bathroom? If so, you’re not alone. Millions of people around the world experience stomach problems from anxiety, including diarrhoea.
But how can you get diarrhoea from anxiety? Is it just a coincidence, or is there a scientific explanation? In this article, we’ll answer those questions and share tips on how to manage stomach issues caused by anxiety.
How Anxiety Affects Your Gut
Anxiety is your body’s natural response to stressful or threatening situations. It prepares your body for action by increasing your:
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate
- Muscle tension
It also activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for your body’s “fight or flight” response. This response is crucial when facing danger but can cause problems when prolonged or triggered by non-life-threatening situations, like everyday stressors. When your body remains in a state of anxiety, it can negatively affect your gut and digestive system.
Diarrhoea From Anxiety: The Gut-Brain Axis
The brain and gut connect through a bidirectional communication system called the gut-brain axis.¹ Your brain sends signals to the gut through the autonomic nervous system, which controls many of your body’s involuntary functions. The gut also sends signals to your brain through various hormones and other chemicals. This communication allows your brain to monitor and regulate digestion. When you’re anxious, this communication can become disrupted, leading to gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms like diarrhoea.
Anxious Stomach vs. Diagnosed GI Disorders
Anxious stomach or “butterflies in the stomach” are common phrases used to describe the physical symptoms that can accompany anxiety. These symptoms can include:
- Abdominal cramping and pain
- Bloating and gas
- Loss of appetite
- Unnatural hunger
They can occur in isolation or together, depending on your anxiety level. While these symptoms may be distressing, they typically subside once the anxiety dissipates. While anxiety can cause an anxious stomach, you shouldn’t confuse these symptoms with diagnosed GI disorders, such as:
- Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which causes inflammation in your digestive tract.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a disorder that affects the large intestine.
- Ulcerative colitis (UC), a chronic IBD that causes inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract.
These conditions have specific criteria for diagnosis and require medical treatment. However, anxiety can exacerbate symptoms of these conditions and make them more challenging to manage.
What Can You Do About Diarrhoea From Anxiety?
There are many effective ways to manage your anxiety and improve your gut health. Below are six tips that can help.
1. Treat diarrhoea with medication and self-care.
If you experience diarrhoea from anxiety regularly, it’s essential to treat it as soon as possible. Chronic diarrhoea can lead to dehydration and malnutrition, which can exacerbate anxiety symptoms. Over-the-counter medications like loperamide can slow down bowel movements and relieve diarrhoea. However, if your diarrhoea persists, schedule an appointment with your general practitioner to determine the underlying cause.
You can also take the following steps:
- Drink water and electrolyte-rich beverages like sports drinks to stay hydrated.
- Eat bland, easy-to-digest foods like bananas, crackers, rice, pasta, and toast.
- Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and fatty or spicy foods that can irritate your digestive system.
2. Practice relaxation techniques.
Relaxing your mind and body can help you reduce your anxiety levels. Find what works for you, and practice it regularly, especially before or during stressful situations. It can also calm your gut. Here are some relaxation techniques you can try:
- Deep breathing: Inhale slowly through the nose, hold for a few seconds, and exhale through the mouth. Repeat this process several times.
- Listening to soothing music: Create a playlist of your favourite calming songs and listen to it when you feel anxious.
- Meditation: Find a comfortable, quiet place, lie or sit down, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. If you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to your breath.
- Muscle relaxation: Tense and relax each of your body’s muscle groups, starting from your toes and working your way up to your head.
3. Adopt a healthy lifestyle.
Your lifestyle choices can affect your mental and physical health. To support your gut and manage anxiety, consider making these healthy changes:
- Eat healthy. Eating a balanced, nutritious diet helps improve gut health and reduces the risk of stomach problems. Include plenty of whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables.
- Take probiotics. Stress, especially chronic stress, can disrupt the balance of gut bacteria, leading to digestive issues like diarrhoea. Probiotics can restore the gut’s balance of good bacteria and improve digestion. Probiotics are live microorganisms you can find in fermented foods like yoghurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut or taken as supplements. However, it’s important to note that not all probiotic supplements are created equal. It’s best to consult with a dietitian, nutritionist, or general practitioner before adding any supplement to your diet.
- Exercise. Physical activity releases endorphins, “feel-good” chemicals that can help reduce stress and promote overall well-being. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise each day. Additionally, exercise can help regulate bowel movements and relieve constipation or diarrhoea caused by anxiety. It also improves your sleep quality, which is crucial for managing stress and anxiety.
- Get enough sleep. A lack of sleep can disrupt gut health and worsen anxiety symptoms. Sleep for seven to nine hours every night to manage anxiety and promote well-being.
- Quit smoking. Smoking can worsen anxiety and increase the risk of developing stomach problems. If you smoke, consider quitting to improve your overall health.
4. Seek support.
Reaching out to your family, friends, co-workers, or others who understand what you’re going through can help you feel less alone. You can join a support group, online or offline, to share your experiences and learn from others with similar problems.
5. Talk to your mental health provider about treatment options.
Your provider may prescribe medication to help manage symptoms. They may also recommend psychotherapy (talk therapy) to help you manage your anxiety more effectively. Before starting any medication, discuss potential side effects and risks with your provider.
Certain medications can help manage symptoms. They include:
- Antidepressants that help manage anxiety and depression. They work by regulating certain chemicals in the brain that affect mood and emotions
- Benzodiazepines, which work quickly to reduce anxiety symptoms
- Beta-blockers that block the effects of adrenaline, which helps reduce physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat and shaking
Psychotherapy involves talking to a therapist to identify and change negative thoughts or behaviours that may contribute to your anxiety.
Here are two types of therapies that are effective for treating anxiety:
- Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) involves identifying and changing negative thoughts and behaviours that contribute to anxiety. A 2018 report found that CBT is an effective intervention for reducing anxiety symptoms.²
- Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) is a form of CBT that can help individuals with anxiety learn to manage intense emotions and develop healthy coping mechanisms.
6. Consider alternative therapies.
Some people find relief from anxiety and its physical symptoms through alternative therapies like deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (DTMS), ketamine-assisted healing and nutritional therapy. These therapies help you relax, reduce stress, and improve your well-being.
Ketamine, a medication used for decades as an anaesthetic and painkiller, also has antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects. It blocks a receptor in your brain called the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA), which is involved in learning, memory, and mood.
By blocking this receptor, ketamine can create a temporary state of dissociation, where you can detach from your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This allows you to gain a new perspective on your problems.
Nutritional therapy focuses on using food and supplements to address mental health issues like anxiety. It aims to provide your body with the nutrients it needs for optimal brain function while reducing inflammation and oxidative stress that can contribute to anxiety symptoms.
Some of the key nutrients a registered dietitian or nutritionist may recommend include:
- B vitamins
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin D
These nutrients can help regulate neurotransmitters, reduce inflammation, and improve gut health, which can positively impact anxiety.
Deep TMS uses magnetic pulses to stimulate the parts of your brain involved in mood regulation to help improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. While primarily used for depression, there’s growing research on its potential effectiveness in treating anxiety disorders.
Deep TMS is a non-invasive, painless procedure that doesn’t require anaesthesia or sedation, and your provider can complete it in a doctor’s office. It typically involves daily sessions lasting around 20 minutes, with treatment plans ranging from five to seven weeks.
How We Can Help You
Anxiety is a complex, multifaceted condition that requires a holistic and personalised approach. That’s why we offer a range of innovative and evidence-based therapies that can complement traditional anxiety treatments, like medication and psychotherapy.
- Appleton J. The Gut-Brain Axis: Influence of Microbiota on Mood and Mental Health. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2018 Aug;17(4):28-32. PMID: 31043907; PMCID: PMC6469458, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6469458.
- Carpenter JK, Andrews LA, Witcraft SM, Powers MB, Smits JAJ, Hofmann SG. Cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety and related disorders: A meta-analysis of randomised placebo-controlled trials. Depress Anxiety. 2018 Jun;35(6):502-514. doi: 10.1002/da.22728. Epub 2018 Feb 16. PMID: 29451967; PMCID: PMC5992015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5992015.